Refined audiences might have found James’ success in the rags-to-riches princess role a refreshing switch. During her “day job” as Lady Rose Aldridge (née MacClare) on Downton Abbey (2012-2014), she’s recognized moreso for her disregard of mores, as the rebellious youngest daughter of the MacClare family. James’ character means well, though, balancing capable charm and innocent curiosity, arcing from an illicit rendezvous with jazz singer Jack Ross to a safe-but-loving marriage with Atticus Aldridge. She told Zap2it in March, “Part of me wants her to like lose her shit and come back completely wrecked and a ruined woman, and part of me wants her to keep her happily-ever-after.” But happily ever after is subjective. Fans might beg Lady Rose fair stay, while James’ real-life happiness—in the vein of Flow’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—could require roles of increasing challenge, rising to her performative level.
And James’ challenge is arrived. The Surrey-born player, whose childhood friends swore she had that spark given to the flame of fame, is set to enthrall audiences who tune in for portrayal of Natasha Rostova in the forthcoming BBC adaptation of War and Peace. Created by bustier-busting master Andrew Davies, the sprawling saga stars Paul Dano and James Norton as Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, respectively. Given Natasha’s shining legacy—she’s reputed to be the single most complex and wide-sweeping female character known to film, literature, and every performative/literary medium in between—the pressure’s on for James. Consider the novel’s longstanding repute—“This is the first class work!” exclaimed Gustave Flaubert in 1880; Thomas Mann said it was the greatest war novel in history; Ernest Hemingway cites it as his guide to writing stark, straight-forward depictions of war. Then check the alumni of prior adaptations—Anthony Hopkins as Pierre in the 1972 BBC miniseries, and immortal icon Audrey Hepburn as Natasha in the 1956 film.
And then there’s the arc that James must synthesize to bring “Tolstoy’s ideal woman” to life onscreen. Spoiler alert:
Tolstoy’s masterpiece takes Natasha Rostov from bright-eyed 12-year-old crushing hard on Prince Boris (he’s living it up on the Rostov estate); to BFF with symbolic older-bro Count Pierre (he’s rubbing Rostov elbows like a boss); till shit gets real and Boris becomes a career army officer moving Natasha to sad girl club at the ball (Pierre kindly introduces her to hot and—debutante loving—stud Andrei); to spellbound, bewitched, and engaged but on Andrei’s dad’s shitlist (he postpones the wedding, uhhm, right, because he’s paying for it); to “it’s complicated” Facebook status update when Andrei joins the army and heads to the Polish border; to confronting Andrei’s dad and pissing off his daughter; to heartbroken and vulnerable and taken advantage of by major creeper Prince Anatole; to eloping with said creeper; to being intercepted by her cousin who helps her figure her shit out; to attempting suicide upon realizing she does not have her shit figured out; to dealing with the reality of Napoleon invading her country (it’s 1805 btw); to getting her family’s shit together, moving out of the estate and into Moscow; to evacuating Moscow via casualty-loaded carts; to heaviest feels ever when she discovers her dying fiancé is among the wounded; to nursing him till he passes (mom vibes are strong in this one); to moving past all the drama with Andrei’s sister (she was hating hard on Natasha years earlier) so they can watch a fiancée and brother die; to reuniting with Pierre (he’s had it rough; his estranged wife died); to marrying her teen crush Pierre and birthing four sturdy Russian children.
And that is the character Lily James will be portraying in the coming War and Peace adaptation, one of the most complicated—and in essence real—characters that has ever been given a name and written into a page. ‘Nuff said? Nah. Now that we’ve macerated fine literature into text-slang, a transcontinental conversation with the unbelievably talented actress who will realize it, Ms. James:
Natasha’s got a lot going on.
Oh, I sort of just fell in love with Natasha. I was daunted by her, really, so I was excited since there’s so much on the page, so much to draw from.
Is that a blessing or a curse for you as an actor?
Oh well, I actually was so excited because I think in that book, Natasha is one of the most manically complex, brilliant [characters]. She goes from a wide-eyed, optimistic Lolita to slatternly matron who obsesses over her kids.
I start with her at 15 and go right through to when she had to have babies and was married to Pierre. From page to page, she changes. She’s so extreme and so—I can’t even think of the word to describe her.
The change in age seems small. It doesn’t compromise the arc, though?
It’s the same journey [for Natasha] she’s got this young life, still fiery.
Did you glean anything from the novel?
I found that Tolstoy described her bright eyes1 over and over again, her animated bright eyes and that was something I really clung onto throughout. I have the book like a Bible and I carried it around with me everywhere because his descriptions of her—and I worry, because I just so want to do her justice.
Audrey Hepburn also played Natasha, wonderfully. Given creativity’s combinatorial nature, did you borrow anything from her interpretation?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t even watch it actually because I’ve made that mistake before and then you just have someone else’s interpretation of the character stuck in your head and I’m sure if I watched Audrey Hepburn, I would just want to copy everything she did; I love her.
Audrey’s the best. And you’re the best. Natasha, Cinderella, Lady Rose.
Yes. I feel really, really lucky because as a lady in my career, I felt like I’ve had incredible female characters. I got to play strong women, girls that grow into women, and Natasha, told by Tolstoy, she’s the most vivid, wild, wonderful, girl, that’s totally fucked up, who swallows her heart and becomes so torn and then grows into the matriarch next to her husband and yet still has such strength within.
Through Natasha, fans will get to see many facets of you.
She really covers all bases.
What about Natasha haters?
I think it’s amazing how some people think maybe at the end she’s not lit to her full potential or that fire in her has gone, I disagree. I think the way that her life goes and how it ends feels just right and she’s still such a strong woman.
We’re with you, Lily. All the way. Really quick, before you go, tell us about your visit to CALIFUK.
Well, I’d want to walk out of my beautiful old, old flat in Lost London and go down the sort of dauntless park hill which is crumbly and old with a beautiful view of London but then instead of ending up at a tube stop or a pound shop, I’d rather it take me right towards the beach.
1 Below, a sequence of passages from War and Peace interpolating the words “bright” and “Natasha.” 1.1
“That tremulous expression on Natasha’s face, prepared either for despair or rapture, suddenly brightened into a happy, grateful, childlike smile.”
“That morning she had returned to her favorite mood—love of, and delight in, herself. ‘How charming that Natasha is!’”
“Don’t tell Natasha. And don’t attach importance to her being so bright: that’s because she’s living through the last days of her girlhood, but I know what she is like every time we receive a letter from him!”
“And feeling the bright light that flooded the whole place and the warm air heated by the crowd, Natasha little by little began to pass into a state of intoxication she had not experienced for a long while.”
“Natasha brightened up and felt almost in love with this woman, who was so beautiful and so kind.”
“On the contrary it tormented [Natasha] more than anything else of late, and particularly so on this bright, hot summer day in town. ‘It’s Sunday again another week past,’ she thought, recalling that she had been here the Sunday before.”
“His conception of [Natasha] transferred him instantly to another, a brighter, realm of spiritual activity in which no one could be justified or guilty- a realm of beauty and love which it was worth living for.”
“‘You don’t often come nowadays as it is, and this girl of mine,’ said the count good-naturedly, pointing to Natasha, ‘only brightens up when you’re here.’”
“‘Natalie has recovered her looks and is brighter. She sang a song. How easily some people get over everything!’”
“The whole household, servants included, was bright and animated. Natasha was in a state of rapturous excitement such as she had not known for a long time.”
“Natasha continued to look at him intently with bright, attentive, and animated eyes, as if trying to understand something more which he had perhaps left untold.”
“A bright questioning light shone in [Natasha’s] eyes, and on her face was a friendly and strangely roguish expression.”
“Natasha gave herself up so fully and frankly to this new feeling that she did not try to hide the fact that she was no longer sad, but bright and cheerful.”
“The storm was long since over and there was bright, joyous sunshine on Natasha’s face as she gazed tenderly at her husband and child.”
“‘Oh nothing, only a trifle,’ said Natasha, smilingly still more brightly.”
1.1 A variety of English translations were used to create the open source eText version of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. To date, the word “bright” (and associated variants) appear 134 times in the 1877-page novel.
Photographer: Jens Langkjaer for Lgamanagement.com.
Stylist: Francesca Turner at Francesca-turner.com.
Hair: Leigh Keates for Premierhairandmakeup.com.
Makeup: Mary Greenwell for Premierhairandmakeup.com using Lancôme.
Photography Assistant: Jack Grayson.
Styling Assistant: Rebecca Davies.
Producer: Jane Everett for Pranaproduction.co.uk.
Production Assistant: Lousie Baker for Pranaproduction.co.uk.